East of Eden

My hike from Buffalo Peaks Ranch to the top of South Park’s Bald Hill

It’s not just me; any visitor to the Buffalo Peaks Ranch will tell you how Reinecker Ridge draws your gaze in its direction. The ridge is an important component of so many of the ranch’s scenic views, and it finds its way into nearly every photograph taken at the BPR. From my very first visit to South Park, I was fascinated with Reinecker Ridge and the thought of hiking to the top. Even more so, I was dying to see the mysterious land on the other side of the ridge.

Two years ago, my friend Jay and I unlocked that mystery with a successful hike to Reinecker’s summit. Looking eastward over this ridge for the very first time, we beheld scenery as grand as anything we could have hoped for: A large valley, devoid of human habitation, ringed by hills and distant mountains, looking as though very little had changed over the last few million years. In the center of the valley stood a large, lonely hill, known to geographers as Bald Hill. We were blown away by this sprawling vista of incredible natural beauty, and expletives were flowing freely as we voiced our excitement. Turning to make our way back down to the ranch, I already knew that my next trip to South Park would include a hike across this beautiful valley and the opportunity to stand on top of that hill.

Follow this link to read the report of our 2017 adventure, complete with photos and video.

After our visit to the top of the ridge, I learned that Bald Hill and the surrounding landscape fall within the James Mark Jones SWA. I spoke with a friendly agent at Colorado Parks and Wildlife Headquarters who confirmed that hiking from Reinecker to Bald Hill is allowed, once the public access season begins each year on the first of May.

I had hoped to summit Bald Hill during last autumn’s road trip, but the season was unusually cold and wet, and snow kept the Pontiac out of the mountains in 2018.

So, during the first week of May, I arrived in South Park on the day before my hike to set up camp and explore the ranch. This was my first springtime visit to the BPR. The cactus blossoms were out, and mountain bluebirds were plentiful…always within sight as I roamed the grounds. They certainly seemed to enjoy chasing each other around the ranch. But it was too early in the season for the other high-country flowers to bloom, or for the majority of the grasses to appear green.

The following day, I was up before dawn, and the clear morning promised excellent hiking weather. Below, the sun prepares to clear the crest of Reinecker Ridge…

This was also my first overnight stay at the Buffalo Peaks Ranch, and it was an unforgettable experience. There was no one else at the ranch…just me in my tent and the serenading coyotes roaming the valley. The stars that night were as brilliant as I had hoped they would be. Not surprisingly for early May in South Park, it was a cool night—about 30 °F (-1 °C) when I awoke.

Mount Silverheels catches the first rays of the rising sun…

While the ranch began its morning thaw, I shouldered my pack and started off across the valley (to paraphrase Everett Ruess)…

The easiest part of the journey: Following our 2017 route out from the ranch and over Trout Creek, I was soon across the long fence that runs along the base of Reinecker Ridge…

One more glance toward Mount Silverheels, and then I began the switchback march up the steep slope of the ridge…

My return to the top of Reinecker Ridge, and a beautiful view of the Buffalo Peaks Ranch…

The day’s first look at Bald Hill, sitting right where Jay and I left it two years ago…

So, for the second time in my life—but the first time toward the east—I descended Reinecker Ridge. I was excited to be entering unexplored territory…

Down on the valley floor, I came to the fence separating the BLM land from the State Wildlife Area. After passing through and closing the gate, I followed the fence line eastward. Note the cluster of animals in the distance on the left side of the frame…

(Click on any of the photos to view the full-size version in a new tab.)

When I first spotted them, at a pretty fair distance, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I knew they weren’t cows. By their movements, I considered that they might be horses. Finally, I was close enough to know that I was looking at an elk herd—my first such sighting. This made sense, as there were ample piles of “evidence” scattered across the ranch indicating that the elk had been around in force during the winter and spring…

Of course, they had their eyes on me as soon as I had cleared the ridge, and they were making plans to leave the area. As I moved their way up the fence line, they finally had had enough and made their escape down the valley. I captured a brief video of the elk running along the base of the hill, which you can view through these links:

Watch on Vimeo. Watch on YouTube. (Full-screen mode will give you a better look at the herd, and a better appreciation for the shape and scale of Bald Hill than any of the still photos I captured during this hike. Links open in a new tab. Video duration: 22 seconds.) Making a rough count while watching the video, I’d say this herd (or “gang,” if you prefer) numbered well over 100 head.

With the elk dashing safely to the south, I made for the saddle near the north end of the hill, as the north slope looked to be the best approach to the summit…

At the top: I walked a bit past the summit and then turned around for the shot below, to use the snow-capped peaks to the north as a backdrop. Topo maps show Bald Hill’s maximum elevation as 9,556′ (2,913 m). There, I recorded a video that gives you a 360° tour of the surrounding scenery. Here are the links:

Watch on Vimeo. Watch on YouTube. (Links open in a new tab. Video duration: 50 seconds.)

The view to the east. Plenty of room to explore further on future visits…

Looking southward. Note the patches of pine forest on the nearby hills; my next destination after descending Bald Hill. Probably where the elk went, as well…

View to the west, showing the ground I had covered to get here. Reinecker Ridge, in front of the distant Buffalo Peaks…

Making a direct line for the forest, I descended Bald Hill via the steeper south slope, seen head-on in the photo below. My knees were not happy.

Those who roam the West know how scale gets distorted out here; distances are greater than they appear, and objects are larger than they appear. This hike was no exception; whether moving toward or away from the hill, it always took longer than expected to reach the next landmark. I felt very tiny during my time on the valley floor…

One final look back at Bald Hill before entering the forest. Would have snacked on a mouthful of snow, but the ever-present wind had deposited quite a lot of sand and debris on top of this patch…

Now, I was roaming over gentle hills covered with pines. Plants grow much slower in the thin air of Park County. These old trees were tall enough to provide shade, but they’ll never be as tall as their cousins who live at lower elevations. (Sorry, I didn’t take any photos while wandering through the forest.)

This part of the day’s adventure was an unexpected pleasure. Reminded me of my hikes long ago in parts of California…not just the view, but the smell of the sun-baked pines, the smell of the dry grass, the smell of the dead wood. It also brought to mind old western movies and television shows I watched long ago. Cue Lucas McCain…

In addition to the beautiful scenery, this hike was punctuated by blissful silence and solitude. I never encountered another human during my six-hour circuit. However, once I reached the location of the photo above, I was able to peer over the western slope of the ridge. Far below, I could see a few scattered anglers, silently fly fishing on the South Platte River.

Finally, walking northward along the crest of the ridge, I left the trees behind and found myself back home above the BPR…

I’m looking forward to the day when the Land Library will be fully stocked with books. And I’m hoping that they’ll let me take one up to read while sitting on top of Reinecker Ridge.

Visit landlibrary.org.

Sand Hills Sunrise

Back in May, I was lucky enough to spend the night on a ranch in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, a region that is rich in wildlife and sprawling scenery. Quiet, peaceful, beautiful. This was my first close look at the area, and there’s no doubt that I’ll be exploring these hills further in the years ahead.

Cherry County, Nebraska

(These prints and many others may be purchased at gallery.ridingwithcarl.com.)

Loretta

Oh, sweetest at the break of day
Prettiest in the setting sun
She don’t cry when I can’t stay
At least not till she’s all alone
Loretta, I won’t be gone long
Keep your dancing slippers on
Keep me on your mind a while
I’m coming home, I’m coming home

Loretta” by Townes Van Zandt

Kodak Portra 160 35mm film

(This print and many others are available at gallery.ridingwithcarl.com.)

Road Videos

I have finally taken the time to organize and update my online video presence. So, whether you’re partial to Vimeo or YouTube, you can now watch the 40 road trip videos that I have uploaded to each channel. The oldest date back to 1990 (remember VHS?) and 12 of them were captured during last month’s adventure.

I plan to add more content, both old and new, as time allows. Feel free to subscribe to these channels and be notified when new videos are posted. For my Vimeo channel, please follow this link. Or, visit my YouTube channel here.

Thanks, and enjoy!

Amazing

“I’m on the Great Plains! It’s amazing here! The sky is like a person yawned and never stopped!”

– Friend of Ian Frazier, as quoted in his book Great Plains

Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Hiker’s Paradise

Harsh country, yet incredibly beautiful. These are the badlands of the North Dakota’s Little Missouri National Grassland; my first visit to America’s largest National Grassland.

Wandering across the grassy slope in the photo below, I spied three rocky peaks poking above the ridgeline. I decided to hike to the summit on the left…

Like so many other slices of North American wilderness that I’ve been fortunate enough to explore, roaming through this area is a sublime experience. Nothing is more rewarding to me than the opportunity to revel in the silence and solitude of the natural world.

You can follow this Vimeo link to watch a slow rotation atop the butte and enjoy the sweeping view of this amazing landscape. (Video duration is 40 seconds.)

Over one million acres of wild beauty…hiking opportunities to last a lifetime. I’m sure that I’ll return to LMNG again and again.

The One on the Left

After a visit to the top of the butte featured in last week’s post, I continued to roam the dusty roads of Grand River National Grassland. About nine miles to the northwest, I found these scenic buttes in a quieter, more natural section of the grassland where there are no fences, no visible signs of farming or ranching. The butte on the left looked to be the tallest of the bunch, so I decided to visit that summit. Starting out from the Pontiac, I walked past the remains of a cottonwood tree that struggled for many years to survive in this arid land…

Gaining elevation quickly, climbing through the shade of the steep eastern slope…

Just about out of the butte’s shadow as I near the top…

View from the rocky summit. Some nice flat stone there, though I didn’t stand on it as it seemed rather unstable; note that you can look through that hollow area beneath the slab and see the grass down the slope…

You can follow this link to Vimeo and enjoy the scenery from two locations—the first part of the video was taken at road level and the second part shows the view from the top of the butte. (Video duration is 62 seconds.)

I imagine the darkness here is incredible. I definitely want to return to this desolate area and stay through the night, listening to the coyotes and enjoying the blazing stars.

Next week…a butte in North Dakota.

Time to Climb

Perhaps having lived in flat farm country for so many decades is the reason I’m driven to climb every hill that I see. During October’s tour of nine National Grasslands, I’m happy to report that I ascended more buttes than on any previous fall excursion.

Despite numerous journeys through South Dakota over the years, there is one grassland that somehow escaped my notice until 2018—Grand River National Grassland in the northwestern corner of the state. Rolling northward through this grassland on a sunny autumn day, I came upon a nice hill very close to the road. I’m always happy to add another summit to my list, even if it’s an unnamed peak and an easy climb. So I turned left, parked on the shoulder and began my march to the top of this butte…

Butte? That’s what I call the many hills of this size and shape that are scattered across the Great Plains. True, they don’t resemble the classic vision of a butte—those towering red-rock formations with vertical sides and a flat top. Perhaps these buttes of the prairie are made of softer material and have eroded more quickly. Call them hills, call them peaks…I’m not looking for a debate on the topic. I’ll just say that many of these hills are labeled as buttes on maps, such as the Dog Ear Buttes, which I climbed in 2017, and White Butte, seen in the photo below, which lies just to the southwest of this summit. I’ll pay a visit to the top of White Butte on my next trip to the area…

As a special bonus to this ascent, I enjoyed a little western flavor while I hiked, watching a small cattle drive as it approached from the east. In this photo, the lead cowboy is well out front, just approaching my parked car. Behind him are twenty or so head of cattle, with the other two cowboys bringing up the rear. It was fun to watch them glide slowly and rather silently down the dusty road. No one stopped to sniff the Pontiac…

Near the butte’s summit, I was intrigued by this collection of large boulders; oddly round, rather brittle in nature and spotted with bright orange lichen. Have to wonder how these rocks got here…

You can follow this link to Vimeo and watch a slow 360° rotation atop the summit. (Video duration is 55 seconds.) This was only the first climb of the day; I’ll have more butte stories for you in the weeks ahead.